How soon optimism can dissipate. A momentous 3-0 win at Reading had given Wigan Athletic a real boost and lifted them out of the relegation zone, albeit on goal difference. Then came that painful 4-0 home loss to Liverpool, a horror movie in the making. Can Wigan pick themselves up, repair their wounded morale and get back into the fray?
The next game for Wigan is one that no realist would expect them to win. The FA Cup sixth round tie at Everton is likely to be largely attended by Latics' second string side. The cup competitions have been the saving grace for Wigan this season, with heartening performances that have helped lift morale within the club. However, Roberto Martinez would be unwise to risk senior players for an FA Cup tie, given Wigan's precarious league position. If Everton put out their strongest lineup, the scoreline could prove scary. The prospect of two consecutive really poor results looms.
That kind of scenario could pose a real challenge for morale within the club, but history shows that Wigan Athletic are resilient. Even after the most disturbing of horrow shows, they have shown the soldier's ability in not looking back.
It's tight this year. With 10 games to go it is possible for both Sunderland and Newcastle to get sucked into the relegation battle. Both lie 6 points above the relegation zone. However, Sunderland do have some quality and an experienced and capable manager in Martin O'Neill. Newcastle have even more quality players, including transfer window signings, and it is unlikely they will get relegated. Norwich above them do not have as much quality, but they are two points ahead of the north east clubs. It would take a calamitous fall for the Canaries to be dragged into the mire.
We are therefore looking at the teams currently in the bottom five - a mini-league between QPR, Reading, Aston Villa, Wigan and Southampton, with the top two surviving.
Let's take a look at the opposition for Wigan:
Queens Park Rangers won only their third game of the season last weekend, dragging Southampton back into the danger zone. Despite having quality players they have been woeful this season. However, with that kind of quality and a manager as seasoned as Harry Redknapp, don't count them out. They were lucky to survive last season and fortune could smile on them again. They have yet to play three games against the bottom five teams and two against the top five.
Reading looked poor and low on quality against Wigan, but what they lack in class is compensated by their workrate and determination. That spirit has helped them produce last ditch rescues in matches where they have looked down and out. They play three games against bottom five and three against the top five.
Aston Villa have gambled on youth and their inexperienced defence is very vulnerable. However, senior players such as Charles N'Zogbia and Gabriel Agbonlahor, together with the exciting young striker Christian Benteke pose an attacking threat. They play three games against bottom five and two against the top five. Their next two games are against QPR and Reading and failure to win at least one of those will put them under great pressure.
Southampton's bubble is now starting to burst. They had been punching above their weight in lifting themselves out of the relegation zone. A positive, attacking team with a great disciplinary record, they don't deserve to go down. A lot will depend on their resilience. They play only one game against the bottom five and two against the top five.
Up to this point, results between the "mini-leaguers" put Wigan in front:
- Wigan – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W3 D0 L0 – 14 points (from 6 matches)
- Southampton – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W2 D1 L0 – 13 points (from 7 matches)
- QPR – Home W0 D2 L1 Away W1 D1 L0 – 6 points (from 5 matches)
- Aston Villa – Home W1 D0 L2 Away W0 D1 L1 – 4 points (from 5 matches)
- Reading – Home W0 D0 L1 Away W0 D1 L3 – 1 point (from 5 matches)
Much is going to depend on results in games played between the bottom five. Bad results in two or more of these matches could prove fatal for any of those teams, barring Southampton who only have one remaining, at Reading. The Royals also have home games left against QPR and Aston Villa.
Wigan Athletic have been in this position before and showed the resilience and mental strength to get out of it. Last year's miraculous type of recovery is unlikely to happen again. It will be more a matter of grinding out results and keeping their heads above water. Wigan will face two games against the bottom five and three against the top five, a difficult run-in.
Latics fans will hope that survival will still remain a possibility when they face Aston Villa in their final match of the season at the DW Stadium. It would not be the first time that they reached salvation on the final day